Howard Dean's appointment to the chair of the Progressive Book Club is being hailed as a major step on the part of Democrats to close one of the few remaining institutional deficits they have with Republicans.
For years, progressives have watched with a mix of envy and wonder at the capacity of the conservative movement to nurture and promote its young writers. As the Democratic Party and like-minded institutions have matched their ideological counterparts in other organizational functions, that gap in book promotion has lingered.
Enter Dean. The former Vermont Governor is, among other things, known for his emphasis on party infrastructure and organization. His presidential campaign in 2004 helped set the stage for the online and grassroots activism that propelled Barack Obama's candidacy four years later. His 50-state strategy as chair of the DNC was, likewise, based on the idea that strong roots made the party more formidable.
Now, progressives are hoping he can help implement a similar philosophy when it comes to an important sliver in the battle of ideas.
"Books are extraordinarily important, even in this day of the Internet," said Dean. "It is the one place where you can have the time, take the length, do the work that you need to do, to fill out the kind of ideas and the kind of framework that you need for a better world. The Progressive Book Club (PBC) was started as an antidote to the framework for a worse world by the conservative book club. They have been saying all kinds of things that bring us back for a long time. Yet their ideas are potent because there hasn't been an organized opposition."
It's a big task. The Conservative Book Club has more than a four-decade head start on its progressive counterpart. Founded in 1964, it has proved remarkably effective in marshaling the prestige and resources of established Republican institutions around the works of prominent and even lesser-known writers. Organizations like the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation often buy books in bulk while conservative media outlets host authors on their shows to discuss and promote their work, often pushing books up the bestseller lists. In 2007, the CBC announced it had acquired the American Compass Book Club, pushing its membership to more than 100,000.
"The Conservative Book Club knew that if could aggregate an audience and put its stamp on a book... it could broaden that book's reach and get people outside to buy these books," said Elizabeth Wagley the PBC's founder and CEO. "And it has a very broad impact on the market."
By contrast, the Progressive Book Club was launched in June 2008. And while Wagley wouldn't elaborate on the current membership totals, she said it was in the "many thousands." That said, the group has made large strides in its internal organization Currently it has partnerships with 40 progressive organizations including the Center for American Progress, Campaign for America's Future, and Dean's own Democracy for America. Its editorial members include, among others, the New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg, The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel, CAP's John Podesta and SEIU header Andy Stern. Perhaps the biggest thing the PBC has going for it, is its melding of 21st Century technologies with traditional book club functions. Everything is put on line, said Wagley, allowing for an easier dissemination of material and conversation among members.
But there is still room for growth. This past year, the PBC helped promote Democratic strategist Mike Lux's "The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be." The process, which included online chats and book discussion forums, drove up sales, much to Lux's delight. "We felt great about working with them and felt that they really helped out in a variety of ways," he said.
But, he added, the infrastructure to thrust the book into a national light -- either through media promotion or bulk buying -- is not yet in place.
"I don't think we are there right now," he said. "I think progressives really need to get into the idea of helping market progressive media. And not just books, but blogs, radio shows and TV shows, everything. We really don't do a good job of marketing our idea. Conservatives have always been ahead of us. They still are."
Dean's task is to connect those dots between established Democratic institutions, young progressive authors and sympathetic, or even mainstream media outlets. Initially approached to serve on board, then asked to be the board's chair, he is being asked, in essence, apply a version of 50-state-strategy to the progressive book industry.
"Gov. Dean is really a terrific fit for us," said Wagley. "Among many things he was a pioneer in the progressive movement and his strategy during his presidential campaign and 50-state strategy really paved the way for the president we have today. He is also committed to the value of ideas. He understands that sloganeering doesn't get you very far. At the end of the day people have to understand arguments and we are trying to create a platform for these authors to really help get their ideas out there and Dean's presence alone helps with that."